When I was 15 I was at an amusement park with a friend. I was showing off to her by balancing a folding chair on my chin (do my talents ever cease?).
A manager was walking up to me, “Hey, I need that chair back. But you should apply for a job. We’ll hire you.”
I had planned on being a lifeguard that summer (my penchant for laid-back jobs started early). I had gotten all the required certifications and was just starting to apply for jobs. But show biz sounded so much better!
So I spent the summer at a charming, but dying, small amusement park. The crowds were so small that the three other entertainers and I spent most of the summer in the lounge entertaining each other instead.
Paul was my supervisor, he was hired as a consultant to work part-time overseeing the park’s entertainment. We got along and at the end of the summer he asked if I’d like to work part-time for him at his theater. It turns out Paul operated a marionette theater. He wrote the shows, recorded the soundtracks for them, with original musical scores, sculpted all the puppets and made all the props himself. He taught me a lot of what he knew over the next two years. His entire company consisted of just himself, one business partner, and me.
I became a pretty good puppeteer over those years and got comfortable working large crowds. I remember picking up the pamphlet for the Fine Arts Puppetry Program at UConn at one point and considering a future in the arts (Thank god I put it down).
My friendship with Paul was well solidified by the time I was heading off to college.
We would often work together in the basement of the theater sculpting, painting and building. We would have long conversations as we worked with some ambient radio in the background. It was just a few weeks after working with him at the theater that, when it became relevant during our conversation, Paul told me he was gay.
He looked up from his work at me, “I don’t know if that bothers you or anything…”
“Nope. I am too.”
And then we learned from each other, he got some insight into what it was like to be an openly gay 16 year old high school athlete in a small town. And I began my understanding of what life was like through the 70′s, 80′s and the AIDS crisis. Imagine watching over half of your friends and even acquaintances die, painfully, over a ten year period throughout your 20′s and you can begin to understand the horror most gay American men went through. – Simultaneously grieving for their friends and fearing for their own lives; wondering if they were next. It’s an understanding that has since been expanded on by my subsequent inter-generational friendships.
Paul was just turning 40 when I met him. And I was born old, so we got along. He was a very positive voice for me. I mean, the man made his living off of producing puppet shows; he believed anything was possible. My ideas and plans were always met with positive affirmation. – Rather than the doubt, uncertainty and discouragement so many people offer.
He almost became a catholic priest, but as a young man changed his mind just before he was about to enter the seminary and chose to pursue the fine arts instead. So he was always ready to discuss theology, ethics and philosophy, as well as poetry, painting and business.
We would chat and I would phone him now and then while I was off in New Mexico. And I’d always visit him whenever I was back in town. And since I moved back to New England about six years ago we’ve collaborated on more projects, had many dinners and barbecues in his garden, and gone on annual camping trips to Cape Cod.
Our relationship, now over twelve years old, is my longest running friendship with anyone.
I received a phone call last week during my train ride across the country. It was Paul’s friend and business partner calling to tell me that, after not feeling well last week, Paul had some images taken at the hospital and has been told he has a cancer that has metastasized to his brain, bones, and kidneys, and it is untreatable.
He is now at home, on hospice care, with a morphine drip and days to live. He’s 53 years old.
I’ve never really experienced death intimately in my life. I’ve had some older family members pop off, but no one I was really close to. I was at Paul’s bedside yesterday and will be again tomorrow. I’d be there every minute if he wanted, but he has a big family and a lot of people who want to pay him a visit while they have a chance, and he needs some time to rest so I’m trying not to be selfish with his time.
I’ve taken the news with a sort of calm mourning. I feel a loss, myself, for losing my friend. – And I feel a sort of empathetic loss for Paul’s missing out on what would have been a great few more decades.
But Paul is a resolute stoic, ready to die and at peace with his fate. And I’ve followed his lead. We’ve talked candidly about the entire thing, not missing any opportunities for dark humor. And the experience has made me yet more appreciative of the relationships I have and the people I love.
It’s difficult to come to some conclusion when discussing something so feared. I suppose the typical way to finish talking about death is to turn away from it, back towards life, and remind everyone that we are to seize the day and appreciate the time we have because, though we may forget it sometimes, it is not limitless. But you all know I don’t write clichéd drivel.
I’d rather leave it as the cold, hard, punch in the face that it is. My friend is dying and I’ll miss him terribly.
A picture of Paul’s formal garden I took almost ten years ago. It looks much the same today.